Life imitates art

I’m a little behind pace on my National Novel Writing Month novel. But I had a vacation day yesterday, and caught up just a little. I am taking comp time today, because I’ll work a full day Saturday covering various events, and hope to catch up a little more today.

Just a few days ago, I had my main character worrying about something going wrong with his car.

This morning, I had (re)scheduled a lunch with Chris Shofner, a former co-worker (Chris was editor when I first joined the T-G in 1985). I went out to my car at the time I wanted to leave, and – it wouldn’t turn over. Chris came over and gave me a jump start, and I got the car to the place where I normally take it – which has changed hands since the last time I went there.

They tested and ruled out the alternator, and then tested the battery – bad. Not as expensive as an alternator would have been, but still exactly the kind of thing my main character was worrying about in the novel. Chris and I had our lunch while they were putting in a new battery.

If I have this kind of control over time and space, maybe I should have my character in the novel win the lottery.

Table for one, please

A month ago, we had a belated cast party for “Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got The Will?” at one of our local restaurants and had such a great time we decided to do it again a month later. At the time, all I was thinking about was that the first Tuesday of the month was the only one in which I had no county meetings to cover. I didn’t think about it being Election Night, when I’d have to be at the courthouse collecting results. When I realized the conflict a few days ago, I had to beg off.

Meanwhile, I ran into an old co-worker on Halloween night and he suggested we get together for lunch. Tuesday sounded fine to me — this time, I knew it was Election Day, but I also know that during the day, when the voting is actually taking place, isn’t necessarily that hectic. In fact, I need to take a little comp time during the day to make up for the fact that I’m working long hours in the evening, so a relaxed lunch with an old friend sounded like a great idea.

But the friend called me this morning — he’d suddenly realized it was Election Day, automatically assumed I’d be too busy for lunch, and went ahead and made other plans before calling me.

So now, I’m eating alone for both lunch and dinner — which is par for the course, but in this particular case a bit of a disappointment.

Day two, 4,100 words

bookcoverI might end up writing a little more before I go to bed tonight, but I seem to be at a stopping point.

I am officially ahead of the 50,000-word pace on my National Novel Writing Month project, “The Unreliable Narrator,” but I’m not as far ahead of pace as one would expect to be after two weekend days. I had sort of hoped to get 5,000 this weekend, especially since I may not have much time to write Tuesday, Election Day.

I have gotten off to a mixed start. I like some things, but what I’ve got so far is a little more scattershot, a little too autobiographical, and a little more rambling, than I had intended. But this is NaNoWriMo – it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be 1,667 words a day. It may be that nothing I produce this month will be marketable. Or it may be that there Participant-2014-Square-Buttonwill be parts of what I produce that I can turn into something marketable. But it’s more about the discipline and the experience than about crafting the next Great American Novel on this particular try.

One fun thing is that three of my “Daddy’s Dyin … Who’s Got The Will?” castmates are also taking the plunge this month, and so I’ll get to commiserate with them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get to make it to our cast get-together Tuesday night – I had forgotten about the election back when we scheduled this.

juggling act

I had three different groups today during my Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer time at Learning Way.

Ms. Aymett had given me a basket of several different activities – but several of the little Ziploc bags, which she had described to me as containing rhyming words, did not rhyme. I looked at the pictures, and I looked at the teacher’s list of words, and there was not one rhyming combination in the first bag, and I don’t think there was one in the second bag either. (I think she just grabbed the wrong bags.)

So we moved on to one of the other games, where the kids are given are some words and asked to put them together into a sentence. The kids were surprisingly eager to do this.

The group dynamics of this were interesting, and I had to watch to make sure I was managing them as well as I could. In one particular group, there was a boy who was very pro-active (and right, a good part of the time). I wanted to reward him for being right, but I didn’t want him to take over the process or take too much time away from others.

I was well aware that other students (like the very quiet girl sitting right next to me) might or might not have the right answer, and that might be unrelated to whether or not they were willing to jump in. I had to be very deliberate – and I’m not sure I was successful – about trying to manage things so that everyone had a hand in the process.

I love this experience – but by the end of the hour, I’ve usually been keenly reminded what an amateur I am.

My third group was just two children, both girls, and with that one it was a lot easier. We breezed through the sentence game, and had time for the only other thing in the basket: some flash cards with words and letters on them. I thought this would be a hard sell, but they were happy to demonstrate their expertise.

In the on-deck circle

At this time next weekend, I’ll be noveling.

It’s been two or three years since I’ve made a serious stab at National Novel Writing Month, but – along with several of my recent “Daddy’s Dyin’” castmates – I’m going to do so this year.

National Novel Writing Month – “NaNoWriMo,” to participants – is an annual writing exercise, just for the fun of it. It’s not competitive (unless you make it so!), and anyone can participate, whether you normally consider yourself a writer or not. The idea is that you write a 50,000-word novel (which some would call a novella) entirely during the month of November. You can prepare in advance (plot outline, character biographies, etc.), but the normal interpretation is that you do not start any actual writing until Nov. 1.

If you get to 50,000 words by November 30, even if you haven’t finished the novel, you have “won” – although bragging rights and personal satisfaction are the only stakes.

The idea here is that 1,667 words per day is a very fast pace. It’s too fast for you to stop and do any editing, and it’s too fast for any long pondering about what to add. You have to make yourself sit down and write, period.

Some of what you write in that fast a pace is, almost by necessity, going to be horrible. The novel as a whole may turn out not to be anything at all good or marketable (which are not the same thing). But by forcing yourself to write every day, and hopefully turning off that little “no” voice in your head, you sometimes come up with little creative ideas and twists and turns that would never happen in a careful, more deliberate environment.

The official NaNoWriMo web site offers you a chance to connect with other participants, gives pep talks, and allows you an easy way of tracking your word count. You enter your word count and the site and you can see an easy-to-understand line graph showing whether you’re ahead of or behind pace. If you’ve missed a day (I doubt I’ll get much writing done on Election Day, for example), the site will show you what your pace needs to be to catch up and still get to 50,000 by month’s end.

In some areas, there are actually author meet-ups or “write-ins” at some quiet place like a library or coffee shop, where you can bring your laptop and do what’s normally a very solitary activity in the company of others. (“Anybody got a suggestion for a character name?”) I don’t have a laptop, and the closest location for the meetups is in Murfreesboro, but I’d love to go to one some day just to see what it’s like.

If you make it, there’s usually a little certificate you can download and print out, plus a little logo you can post to your web site or social media. It’s all on the honor system, though. Sometimes the Amazon-owned self-publisher Createspace offers you a free proof copy of your novel, which is how I came to publish my own Bad Self-Published Novel, which began its life as a NaNoWriMo project.

You can always go back later, after November has ended and you’ve taken a bit of a break, and see whether or not you think there’s enough there to make it worth trying to rewrite the novel, taking out the terrible stuff while leaving in those moments of inspiration.

There have actually been authors who have traditionally published novels which began during NaNoWriMo. Many others, of course, have self-published their NaNoWriMo novels. I still wonder what would have happened to “Soapstone” if I’d been a little bit more patient and gotten it professionally edited.

Anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo. It’s completely free, although they do sell merchandise and solicit donations to keep the web site up and running. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you get to 50,000 is amazing.

the disappearing child

I have been in kind of a funk the past few days, but I knew my weekly volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary would get my mind off things.

This week, Regan had me with the same group of kids – three of them – for the whole hour. We played two different games and I read two different booklets to them.

It all started off well enough – they did well with the first game. But as the hour went on, one boy became a little more animated. He tried to read aloud from his book even while I was trying to read to the group (and he was on a different page). A different boy became a little more withdrawn as the hour went on. Regan had apparently made him take off his hoodie earlier, and I, not knowing this, let him put it back on. (He said he was cold.) As the hour went on he kind of disappeared into it, pulling the hood down over his head and the torso up over his chin.

The two booklets were fairly standard little things, and very similar to each other – one was about how plums are grown, the other was about the life cycle of acorns becoming oak trees and then dropping new acorns. Regan had specifically told me to read each book twice aloud to the kids.

“This is stupid,” said one of the kids.

I tried to be patient and kind throughout but also to be firm and direct when I needed to keep things on track. I think by the end of the hour I was getting a little frustrated. (And I only do this for an hour a week.)

The third child, a girl, was fine. I had no problems with her whatsoever.

I so admire the professionals who do this day in and day out.

John goes back to school

Since January of 2013, I’ve been a volunteer with the “Raise Your Hand Tennessee” program at Learning Way Elementary School, spending an hour a week on Monday mornings as a volunteer.
In that spring semester of 2013, I divided my hour between Regan Aymett and another teacher, but in the 2013-14 school year, and again this year, I’m with Regan’s class for the whole hour. It’s always one of the highlights of my week.
The program is designed to help reading skills. You can volunteer to work individually with a child, or with groups. I volunteered to work with groups. United Way will work around your schedule to put you in a school near you on a day and time that’s convenient for you. (The program also does a background check on each volunteer, so parents and educators can feel safe about them coming into the classroom.)
Back when I signed up for the program, I think I had something in mind similar to when I’d visit a local school on “Read Across America” day — sitting in a rocking chair reading to the kids. But that hasn’t been it at all. Usually, what happens is that when I arrive, Regan will pull out a small group of kids and I’ll sit with them at a table, playing some sort of word-based game, or helping them fill out a worksheet based on some little story book.
I really enjoy it, and miss it during breaks.
The program is organized by local United Way groups, and each fall my friend, United Way of Bedford County executive director Dawn Holley, waits until after the horse show break to start calling school principals and setting things up for the new school year. Last week, Dawn gave me the go-ahead to start my volunteering for the school year, and so I was in Regan’s class this morning.
Regan is a “looping” first and second grade teacher, meaning that she teaches a group of first graders, then stays with them the next year as their second grade teacher, then loops back to pick up a new crop of first graders. So I’d been with many of the same kids during that first school-year-and-a-half, but now she’s got a brand new class.
Today, I worked with getting the kids to sort cards into proper nouns and common nouns. I had one group for the first half hour, then a different group for the second half hour. It all seems pretty basic, but Regan — an NEA Master Teacher, who’s had some of her lessons captured on video to be used by other teachers around the country — said to me at the end of the hour today that she can accomplish a lot more just by having me take one small group and her take another. (A third group of kids was over near the computer stations with a teaching assistant.)
I make up for my missing hour by coming in to work a half hour earlier on Mondays and working an extra half hour at some other time during the week. I really find it personally rewarding, and I strongly recommend it. As I said, you can choose whether you want to work with an individual child or with groups, and they’ll work around your schedule. There’s tons of scientific evidence about the educational value of adults reading to children or listening to children read.
It’s not too late to sign up for the program. Here in Bedford County, you can call United Way at 931-684-6685. Elsewhere in Tennessee, check with your local United Way organization, or check with the school system to see what sorts of volunteer programs are available.

Pickup rehearsal

Our original plan was to have two full rehearsals, but without costumes or perishable food props, one tonight and one tomorrow night.

But when we got ready to rehearsal tonight, we realized a reason why we needed to wear costumes tomorrow night. And so we decided that tomorrow night would be another dress rehearsal, and tonight we’d just do a table read, running our lines but not our “blocking” (stage movements).

It went pretty well. I’d listened to my lines a couple of times since last weekend, but I can’t say that I was very intense about it, and so it was nice to know that I didn’t lose all my lines over the past few days. Everyone else did well too.

Everyone reports getting good feedback about our opening weekend, and ticket sales are going well so far for our second and final weekend. If you don’t have your tickets yet, call 684-8359.

Recovery mode

Community theater folk use the term “hell week” to describe the last week before a performance opens. It’s busy, and intense, and stressful.

We had a rehearsal last Sunday afternoon, but it wasn’t the whole play. Then we had rehearsals every night, Monday through Thursday, lasting generally until 9:30 or 10 at night – and this was during a relatively-busy week for me in my day job. Then we opened Friday night and had a performance Saturday.

The play was well-received, and I think all of us were happy with opening weekend. This has been a great cast to work with – a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds, but we’ve all thrown ourselves into this play and we’ve all gotten along quite well. There’s not a weak link in the chain.

I was a little worried about how some people would take my part – I’m playing a pretty unlikable character, and I use quite a bit of mild profanity. One man from church jokingly told me in the reception line Saturday night that the bishop wanted to see me about revoking my lay speaker certification. But I think people have taken the play for what it is.

This morning, instead of going to First UMC, I went and judged a barbecue cookoff at Fellowship For Christ, a non-denominational church north of town, and then stayed for their service. I did not stick around for the church picnic afterward, though; I went to Walmart, stood in the express lane for what seemed like forever, and then came home. I tried to watch the first episode of “The Roosevelts” but fell asleep through most of it. Later in the day, Vickie Hull from church posted a Facebook photo from Normandy Lake, where First UMC was having its annual Galilean Service and picnic. I had completely forgotten about that – and, of course, I wasn’t in church this morning to be reminded of it.

That’s OK, though. I needed to recuperate today. I did not walk, I did not study my lines, I did not do much of anything once I got home.

Normally, you have one rehearsal, called a “pickup” rehearsal, between the two weekends of a community theater production. We’re going to have two, on Wednesday and Thursday nights, because we love you, the audience, so much. I have a couple of early-evening commitments – a funeral visitation Monday, and a county meeting Tuesday – until then, but I’ll still have tonight and most of the next two evenings to try to catch up on unfinished business.

If you’re in the area, and able to come and see us next weekend, I think you’d really enjoy the play. You can make reservations by calling 931-684-8359 or visiting The Fly Arts Center Monday, Tuesday or Thursday from 11 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

A man with true grits

I have used a pre-mixed breader for fried chicken made by a company called House-Autry, but when I was in Food Lion a week or two ago I found something of theirs I’d never seen before: Dinner Grits.

As the name implies, these are boxes of grits in several savory flavors, made to be combined with shrimp or some other meat and used as a main dish.

They have Broccoli & Cheddar; Parmesan & Herb; Creole; Cheddar Cheese; and Roasted Garlic & Butter flavors.

The packaging for most of the flavors emphasizes shrimp & grits, but when I saw the product I had already added some hot smoked sausage to my shopping cart, thanks to a coupon from Food Lion’s in-store coupon kiosk. Smoked sausage (or andouille, on the rare occasions when I can get it) is my go-to ingredient when I make Zatarain’s jambalaya, and I figured the smoked sausage would probably go well with the creole flavor even though it wasn’t one of the suggested ingredients on the box.

I have to say, it didn’t turn out badly